By NATALIE WRIGHT
Members of Washtenaw Community College’s faculty union brought more than a year of strife with the college’s administration to a head recently, reaching out to a third party to intervene in what the faculty called a “crisis” at the college.
On June 16, the union’s leadership sent a letter and package of evidence of their concerns to the Higher Learning Commission, WCC’s accrediting body.
The letter, written by more than 20 faculty members, alleged that the college’s administration, under President Rose Bellanca’s leadership, and Board of Trustees have violated the HLC’s criteria for accreditation, as well as the college’s stated mission and the board’s own policies.
The faculty released the letter, but withheld the attached documents, fearing that releasing them may jeopardize the HLC’s investigation, faculty union President Maryam Barrie said.
During a May 27 meeting of the Board of Trustees, several board members, along with Bellanca, endorsed the idea of bringing in the HLC or another third party, but have since distanced themselves from the decision.
The letter stated that the faculty’s desired outcome is to “hold the WCC Board of Trustees accountable” to address their concerns and to “ensure that the college is under capable leadership.”
The faculty highlighted three major points of concern in the letter: a loss of institutional leadership and knowledge; an absence of joint governance; and the dismantling of the academic structure and processes.
Loss of institutional leadership
A significant loss of personnel has led to a depletion of institutional leadership and knowledge at the school, the faculty wrote.
“Many administrators and support staff have been demoted, involuntarily transferred, forced to retire or resign, or been fired during President Bellanca’s time at the college,” the letter read. “The departure of several key personnel from the administration has caused a severe loss of institutional knowledge that is crippling the effectiveness of the college.”
The faculty cited the interim status and uncertain future of the Vice President of Instruction position since Stuart Blacklaw was fired in March 2013, and four out of five recently vacated academic dean positions that have been filled with interim deans. There also doesn’t appear to be a plan to replace the dean of Distance Learning, they wrote.
This loss of leadership hinders the faculty’s ability to work effectively and take part in decisions regarding curriculum, Kelley Gottschang, chair of the Curriculum Committee, wrote in a separate letter to the Board of Trustees, also delivered on June 16.
“All of this creates a vacuum in the academic chain of command,” Gottschang wrote, “resulting in a culture of non-academic administrators creating, running, scheduling and supervising credit-based courses and programs.”
Absence of joint governance
While the academic chain of command has been depleted, the administration has grown, and an increase in top-down decision-making and communication has led to a decrease in faculty involvement, the letter said.
The faculty noted that in Bellanca’s three years, the college has gone from having two vice presidents to eight, and there has been a “corresponding increase in unilateral decision making.”
One example cited in the letter is a $2.9 millon Department of Labor grant, which was awarded to the college in 2012. The college sought and received the IGNITE grant without the support or involvement of the academic deans and faculty involved, the letter said.
“In that grant, the college promised deliverables without so much as consulting the concerned faculty as to whether or not these deliverables could be delivered,” David Fitzpatrick, chief negotiator for the union, said. “Then when the grant was awarded, it was still several months before the faculty who would be responsible for development was informed of the grant’s details.”
Also cited was a plan for a new $12.5 million Center for Advanced Manufacturing, which the faculty said they first learned about when Bellanca met with department chairs recently. In this meeting, the letter said, Bellanca told faculty to “get on board or get out of the way.”
Bellanca recently denied that she made that comment and suggested that the involved faculty must have misunderstood her.
A lack of communication regarding the budget for fiscal year 2014-15 was also cited in the faculty’s letter. When the letter was written on June 16, the faculty had not received the departmental budgets, two weeks before the start of the fiscal year.
“No one at lower levels of the college knows what their operating budget will be two weeks from now,” the letter said. In the past, department chairs would have had the budget in hand by mid-May, Barrie said.
The budget was approved on June 24 and departmental budgets were sent out later that week.
These examples show that “important decisions and initiatives are frequently communicated as announcements,” the letter said. “The result is that the college is unsettled, unaware and uninformed.”
“Systematic dismantling” of academic structure and processes
The faculty’s last point suggested that the loss of institutional leadership and knowledge was an intentional move by Bellanca to compromise the academic chain of command and take decision-making power out of the hands of academic personnel.
“Increasingly, non-academic vice presidents are moving forward with credit courses, credit programs and agreements involving outside parties,” the letter said. “Our academic chain of command has been isolated, ignored and shifted into perpetual interim status, which puts us in a holding pattern and disempowers the faculty.”
The faculty’s letter cited a recent foreign language initiative with Ypsilanti Community High Schools as an example. The administration had been working on this initiative for almost a year before faculty were notified, Barrie said.
Michelle Garey, chair of the foreign language department, said that when she was notified of the initiative, it was not through the academic chain of command.
“I was asked to participate in this initiative not by my dean nor by the Vice President of Instruction – neither of whom appeared to have any awareness or understanding of this initiative – but by the Vice President of Student Affairs,” Garey said at the May 27 meeting.
Garey was asked to create non-transferable high school courses, she said, that would be available to high school freshman and sophomores and would not count for any type of college credit.
Ypsilanti High School faculty were also in the middle of contract negotiations at the time, Garey said, and were trying to prevent the outsourcing of their jobs.
“And, according to their union president, were completely unaware that an agreement with WCC was already in place,” she said.
“Our recent vote of no confidence … was described as an ‘unfortunate distraction,’” Garey said. “I think an unfortunate distraction would be a headline in a local paper … that reads, ‘WCC scabs local high school jobs.’”
After learning about the initiative, the faculty pointed out that it had “significant problems and potential liabilities,” Garey said. It was potentially in violation of the Michigan Department of Education’s Teacher Certification Code, and WCC’s Board of Trustee’s policy on dual enrollment, she explained.
Bellanca responded to Garey’s comments, saying that the administration hadn’t been aware of the problems with the initiative.
“We did not know that they were negotiating with their union, or we would have never done that,” Bellanca said. “As soon as we heard that it was going to be for ninth and 10th grade, it was no deal … We called immediately and found out, and we told them to stop, that we would stop. We pulled out of it.”
Bellanca and trustees respond
Impassioned faculty speeches and letters have mostly been met with silence on the part of the board over the last two years, but at their May 27 meeting, Bellanca and the trustees broke their silence and responded.
Bellanca spent nearly 10 minutes addressing the vote of no confidence, emphasizing that it’s OK if the faculty doesn’t “like” her, and telling them that she was sorry if she has disrespected them in any way.
She said that she can explain the reasons for everything they’ve raised concerns about.
“The one thing that we can all agree on is that we care about students,” Bellanca said. “You may not like me – I wish you did – but you may not like me, and that’s OK … You might not like my style, because my style is a little more participatory, and sometimes that’s taken a multiple of ways, but what you need to know is that I have my heart and soul in this job.”
And the trustees, she added, hold her to “very high standards,” despite what the faculty might think.
Most of the trustees said that they do not consider it their responsibility to address the faculty’s concerns, nor do they quite understand the concerns. They also reiterated their full support for Bellanca.
Bellanca is working hard to do the right things for every aspect of the college, including those outside of instruction, and for the community, Trustee Stephen Gill said.
“Because we are a community college; we are not just a collection of classrooms,” Gill said.
“The trustees have oversight,” Gill added, “but our job is to support the president and what she does.”
Several trustees reiterated Gill’s sentiments that it is hard for the board to delve too deeply into the curriculum issues, because they have a lot of other constituents to answer to.
“We understand what you’re saying to us, we just don’t understand what is it that you want us as a board to do,” Trustee Diana McKnight-Morton said. “We don’t know what’s going on with your program, because we have so many other issues that we’re looking at. We are the advisory board and we are the policy-making board primarily.
“Right now, you’re taking away from what the real business is of this board to deal with your issues that we still don’t quite understand,” McKnight-Morton added.
Trustee Mark Freeman stood out from the rest of the board, acknowledging that they might have some responsibility to intervene.
“Mostly, I want to see us work and really get to the heart of the matter,” he said. Freeman also noted that the criticisms the board has heard from the faculty “may contain some meaningful information for us.”
What comes next?
The Higher Learning Commission has until July 16 to review the documents and respond to the college.
After the HLC examines a complaint, if it finds valid issues, it sends a report to the institution and requests a response, John Hausaman, and HLC spokesman said.
After receiving the college’s response, the HLC would determine whether or not to take action, Hausaman said, which could lead to a campus visit to investigate.
But the HLC’s complaint process is slow.
“It could be a while before you see anything actually happen,” Hausaman said. “There’s no general time frame. Each complaint would be taken on a case-by-case basis … I don’t anticipate that it would take years, but it could be a while.”
It is important to specify, he added, that the HLC only takes into account the criteria for the school’s accreditation. So if the HLC were to agree with the faculty, that the college has violated the criteria for accreditation, it could put the college’s accreditation in jeopardy.
WCC has been accredited by the HLC since 1975, Julie Morrison, executive director of institutional effectiveness, planning, and accreditation, said at a recent board meeting. The most recent reaffirmation of accreditation was in February 2010, and the next reaffirmation is set for 2019-2020.